Medieval Feminism in The Good Wife of Bath | Book Review

【 THE GOOD WIFE OF BATH 】

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Fiction
Author: Karen Brooks
Published: July 2021
Publisher: Harlequin Fiction
Pages: 560 [paperback]

Content warning (click to see)

rape ° violence ° adult/minor relations ° sex ° murder ° death ° sexism ° assault ° mild homophobia

Big thanks to Harlequin Australia for a copy of this in exchange for an honest review

First thoughts

Wow, I’m not sure I actually have the words to describe how much I loved this book. This is truly unlike anything else I’ve ever read. A powerful historical narrative highlighting the strength of women and the value of family.

What it’s about

The Good Wife of Bath is set in the 14th century in England (Bath/Canterbury/London) and follows Eleanor’s story of having five husbands. It’s a retelling of the Canterbury Tale’s by Geoffrey Chaucer and Eleanor is inspired by the character of the good wife.

Brooks has tried to imagine the wife’s full story and answer the question of how she could have had five husbands, what was going on there? And she’s done a damn good job of it.

At the age of twelve, after someone attempts to rape her, Eleanor is married off to a much older man as his wife. One theme that follows throughout is that Eleanor and Alyson become very good weavers and are always trying to beat men at their own game and make a living off their fine work. And thus the story begins.

Why it’s so good

The character development in this is something to behold. We follow Eleanor through the better part of her life, cheer her successes and sob at her losses. There are so many obstacles that are thrown her way simply for being a woman and you find yourself really backing her, just waiting for something really good to happen as she deserves it so much.

I loved that Chaucer himself has been written as one of the main characters. He is a steadfast friend to Eleanor and I envy the hilarity and brazen honesty of the letters they send to each other – I should very much like to have a pen pal like that.

Eleanor is a determined and inspiring character, who sense of humour had me laughing out loud frequently. Her sense of injustice about the crippling sexism that plagued England more heavily than the plague itself was also a sense of comfort and camaraderie that I enjoyed immensely.

If you’ve ever been angry or frustrated about the way you’ve been treated as a woman, this book will let you vent those emotions by riding the wave of Eleanor’s own fury as she’s defeated at so many turns because of her sex. The book is practically cathartic in this sense, and reassuring that having the tenacity to go on will, eventually, pay off.

The side characters were also incredible. Alyson was a real favourite of mine, like a sister to Eleanor who was there through thick and thin. I loved that Brooks highlighted a strong friendship where women supported women, even through repeated bad decisions, and didn’t fall into the easy trap of the catty narrative that can be full of derision.

Milda was also a favourite of mine, along with Lowdy. Both were inspiring women for the two very different roles they play. It felt as though this story heroed women in a way that’s never been done before by showing us all the ways women can be strong, important and unquestionably centric to their own story.

My final point on this is that Eleanor is a deeply flawed character. And I’d not have it any other way. She’s been painted as a strong woman who is able to get back up after being knocked down time and time again, but she’s no saint. It’s a great way of saying hey, you don’t have to be perfect, and you can be loved just the way you are. This book is like a big, warm hug that says, you’re enough and you’re doing okay.

Summary

I can’t imagine reading a book that I could ever love more than this. Kirkus reviews labelled Brooks as a master storyteller and I couldn’t agree more. This tale has been spun and crafted more tightly and perfectly than Alyson’s own wool, and I have so much respect for Brooks for writing something that packs such a meaningful (and thrilling) punch.

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